NATE’S RANTS: MULHOLLAND DRIVE IS THE BEST FILM OF THE DECADE?

A recent LA times article said so.  Although “Mulholland Drive” demonstrates that distinctly Lynchian atmosphere, the film fails to fulfill my criterion for greatness. David Lynch has almost never fulfilled this criterion (except for the elephant man, which was adapted from a play).

A great director is able to communicate his idea articulately without betraying the emotions/reality of the film. I think all art forms are really a means of communication. When I communicate to you it’s because I have a piece of information and I want you to have it also. To communicate something in a manner that doesn’t effectively transfer the information to you  is irrational. Why wouldn’t I communicate clearly? Don’t I want the receiver to understand? I believe that if you don’t at least attempt to communicate clearly, it’s because you are less interested in the individual you’re trying to reach and more interested in yourself. And I just can’t support selfishness.

But you can’t just be clear with your idea. You also have to convince the viewer that the idea is important, truthful, and relevant. You accomplish this by packaging the idea in emotions/realities that feel truthful and relevant. Sound simple?

Let me explain why it’s not. In any art form, there is a war going on between the ideas of the film and the emotions of the film (according to Brecht). When the ideas of the film are apparent, the emotions start to feel artificial and contrived. Conversely, when the emotions feel organic, the ideas of the film are often obfuscated. Here’s an example. “Casualties of War” is an extremely propagandistic Vietnam War film that criticizes the behavior of U.S. soldiers. How does this idea get communicated? Very clearly. Sean Penn, a U.S. soldier leads a gang rape of a Vietnamese girl. To make the idea even clearer, he laughs callously while the rape happens. To make the idea even clearer, the protagonist (who we identify with) has a look of horror on his face when the rape happens. To make the idea even clearer, there is really slow and somber music playing. This idea is clear. But the idea is so obviously constructed, it doesn’t seem to be an event that actually happened. The emotions are TRAGEDY, TRAGEDY, TRAGEDY and MORE TRAGEDY. Sean Penn is wall to wall malicious and stupid. No human being is as malicious as him. His portrayal also perpetuates stereotypes of soldiers as ignorant assholes. The idea is clear, but trivialized by the simplified emotions.

Take another Sean Penn film, “21 Grams.” We get three intertwining narratives, one of a born again pastor, another of a guy who needs a surgery, and a third about a woman who’s having an affair with him. Their interactions are all very organic, their behavior is nuanced and believable at all times. The world of the film is very naturalistically rendered, portraying events like a shooting or a car accident in a very observant fashion. But what is “21 grams” about? Why the hell is it called 21 grams? It seems to be getting at something very specific, but it’s hard to see how the three characters fit together. Here the humanity of the film interferes with the communication of the idea.

The task of synthesizing the ideas and the emotions is seemingly impossible. A great director can do this.

Lynchian fans might retort that the medium of film, dominantly visual, is less suited to the communication of abstract ideas and more suited to the communications of feelings and images. I agree with them. It is “more suited.”  I interpret “more suited” to mean “easier.” My body is “more suited” to metabolize a twinkie than a piece of broccoli. Does this mean I should eat twinkies all the time? It’s more difficult to digest broccoli and it’s more difficult to construct images so deftly that they SPEAK WORDS. Why would we champion a filmmaker for attempting  easy things?

But if I want to speak words, why not just speak words then? Because often words are more effectively communicated when they are translated into sound and image, that’s why.

Some might say the tragedy of the artist is that he attempts to communicate something, but no one understands what he says. Either they misinterpret his message, don’t appreciate the significance of his message, or don’t realize there’s a message at all. The fatalistic artists resign themselves to attempted indifference toward the audience’s interpretations. By pretending not to  care, their ego is maintained  when no one gets it. So they construct films without any articulate idea and the result is something like David Lynch’s entire ouvre.

What’s more, because his films are so enigmatic, hinting at vague ideas about dreams and reality along the way, David Lynch can pretend that there is some idea operating in there, it’s just difficult to explicate. But actually, there’s nothing there and it took me a while to realize this. Before I just thought I was stupid. Now I realize filmmakers like David Lynch are phonies.

Now, I wouldn’t say that David Lynch’s films are bad per se. But because they are simply stirring your emotions, I believe they can never be considered better than dialectical masterpieces like “The Lives of Others,” “Black Snake Moan,” or “A Clockwork Orange.”

Some filmmakers would describe these kinds of films as “Essay films,” arguing that their theme-and-message-oriented organization is actually inferior to a film which is void of themes and filled simply with “human characters” and “nuanced emotions.” Fine, call these essay films. I call your films “emotional vomit films” lacking any cohesion. Within these films I detect an artist who is either too insecure to put forth his ideas or too weak in conviction to actually have any stable ideas.  I’m not interested in experiencing the perspective of either. I’m certainly not interested in championing one of his films as the best of the decade.

Now here’s what does interest me. Aspring to achieve my own criterion. And I’m fully prepared to endure the “I didn’t get its.” And I’m fully willing to admit that hearing “I didn’t get it” is probably the most devastating thing you could say to me. You might not champion my film as the best of the decade then, but at least I’ll know I’m not a phony.

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